17th March 2020

Conquer Bias: 5 Strategies to Hire Fair

Did you know that more CEOs of large U.S. companies are named John (5.3%) than are women (4.1%)? Although non-discriminatory hiring practices are on the forefront of today’s corporate culture discussions, bias remains a problem. Unfair hiring practices lead to less gender and racial diversity, which affects your bottom line. According to one McKinsey study, gender-diverse companies are 15 percent more likely to outperform their non-gender diverse counterparts. Ethnically diverse companies are 35 percent more likely to outperform.


How to Recognize Workplace Bias


Bias can exist on an organizational and managerial level. As a leader, it’s your job to take an honest look at how bias influences how you and your staff make decisions. Research shows four common situations that promote bias in the workplace:


  • When decision-making criteria is ambiguous.
  • In firms where women are already underrepresented.
  • When success is defined by narrow, male stereotyped criteria such as an assertive communication style.
  • When managers hire their own staff and do not consult a third party (such as an HR representative).


Bias is often unintentional. When we hire, unconscious bias can be positive or negative for the interviewee. Say the candidate attended your alma mater – you may feel inclined to higher him due to a sense of familiarity. But this has no bearing on whether or not this particular candidate is the right for the job – and it’s unfair for the other applicants who lack a coincidental school connection. 


Unconscious bias can also lead to discrimination.  Instead of evaluating candidates on their individual merits, you or members of your team may have hidden stereotypical views or unfair judgements about their age (millennials are so self-involved), or gender (men are just better than women with numbers). 


“[Unconscious biases] cause us to make decisions in favor of one person or group to the detriment of others,” says Francesca Gino, professor at Harvard Business School. In the workplace, this “can stymie diversity, recruiting, promotion, and retention efforts.” 


Bias in workplace hiring practices is reflective of a larger societal issue. According to Iris Bohnet, director of the Women and Public Policy Program at the Harvard Kennedy School, “Seeing is believing. If we don’t see male kindergarten teachers or female engineers, we don’t naturally associate men and women with those jobs, and we apply different standards” 


5 Strategies to Hire Fairly  



  • Create a diverse committee in order to bring a variety of viewpoints into the talent search process. Recruiterbox is a software tool that can help organize and share interview feedback and tasks, and keep everyone on the same page.


  • In job descriptions, use gender neutral language. Software products such as Textio can help you avoid masculine-coded words like “killer,” “driven,” and “confident” as well as feminine-coded words like “loyal,” “commit,” and “support.”



  • Have structured interviews, which decrease bias over unstructured interviews. Rank each candidate’s responses on a pre-established scale. This increases the chance that new hires are based on talent rather than squishy, bias-prone “likability”.


Bias Backlash


If you are a white male, it may be difficult to appreciate how bias plays out in your recruitment efforts. This is known as “bias backlash” which includes a belief in the illusion of equality on the part of the dominant group, as well as, fear of diversity and inclusion messaging. “Diversity goals are worthwhile,” says Bohnet, “They make the issue front and center.” Yet, they “are sometimes controversial for companies because they can undermine the people who are hired in those categories or lead to a backlash from the traditionally advantaged groups.” 


We can see this play out in light of the #metoo movement today. Some male leaders are uncomfortable with society’s spotlight on gender discrimination and sexual misconduct. Ironically, this means women can face even more workplace discrimination than before. “65% of men say it’s now ‘less safe’ to mentor and coach members of the opposite sex.” 


As a leader, you have the power to implement smart, fair hiring strategies as well as fight bias backlash. After all, workplace diversity increases your firm’s productivity and profitability.



Carson serves as a consultant to executives at Fortune 500 companies. The author of Work Simply: Embracing the Power of Your Personal Productivity Style, her views have been included in Bloomberg Businessweek, Fast Company, Forbes, Harvard Business Review blog, and The New York Times.